News that Ferrari is considering an IndyCar program in the wake of Formula 1’s proposed budget cap for 2021 has set many minds racing (pun very much intended) to not only the un-raced ‘637’ Indy prototype commissioned by Il Commendatore himself back in 1986, but also to the one and only time Ferrari entered America’s most famous oval race in 1952.
It didn’t go well.
Certainly the 375 Indianapolis developed for the event had the theoretical chops to get the job done. In its ‘F1’ guise after all, the 375 featured a stiff tubular steel chassis, independent wishbones fore and leaf springs aft, and a 4,382.09cc version of Aurelio Lampredi’s robust V12 capable of 350hp (a 15hp improvement of the 4.1-litre version mounted in the 375’s forebear, the 340 F1). On its debut at the 1950 Italian Grand Prix, the F1-spec 375 finished 2nd with Alberto Ascari behind the wheel – the Italian took over compatriot Dorino Serafini’s entry after, ironically, his own engine overheated – and with only eventual World Champion Giuseppe Farina ahead of him. One year later, the 375 won three times at the hands of Ascari (Reims and Monza) and Ferrari teammate José Froilán González (Spa-Francorchamps), took a further 10 podiums, and fell behind only eventual champion Juan Manuel Fangio in the standings. Hardly any shame in that!
In its Indianapolis guise, the 375 boasted a longer wheelbase, reinforced suspension and chassis, tipped the scales more than 60kg less than its F1 counterpart, and, most significantly, now punched 380hp from the lightly detuned 4382.09cc version of Lampredi’s V12. With Ascari once again behind the wheel, the debutant’s chances, on paper at least, seemed pretty good.
Unfortunately for Ferrari, the 1952 Indy 500 proved a disaster for the prancing horse. Of the four 375s commissioned for the race, only one of them – Ascari’s factory entry – qualified, and even that could only crack 19th on the 33-car grid. Johnnie Parsons, Bobby Ball, and Johnny Mauro’s customer entries meanwhile went no further than bump day, though Mauro’s #35 entry, now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Musuem, was driven briefly by Ascari during free practice.
This being Ascari of course, the #12 had at least made its way into the top 10 before a buckled wire wheel, unable to withstand the Brickyard’s formidable loads, spat Italy’s only F1 World Champion into the wall after just 100 miles. That the Indy 500 was the only race the future two-time champion did not win in 1952 made the result all the more galling for Ferrari.
However, while it was one and done for Ferrari at the 500 in 1952, did you know Fiorano was actually gearing up for a second bite at the cherry in 1954? The project would see Farina take on the 500 for the first time, reigning World Champion Ascari having now departed for Maserati. Ultimately though, the gulf to the all-conquering Offenhauser inline-four cylinders as well as Ferrari’s extended sports car program – the team won its sixth consecutive Mille Miglia in 1953 and its maiden win as a factory entry at Le Mans in 1954 – meant the plan was quickly scrapped and work on its Indy prototype was discontinued.
Said prototype – chassis 0388 – was the sole example made that year, and it would be another 57 years before the completed Ferrari Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis finally made its official Fiorano debut in 2009. By which point, some considerable amount of water had flown beneath il ponte.
Unfinished, and sold to Ferrari’s official North American importer Luigi Chinetti in 1954, the Corsa Indianapolis was presented at the New York Motor Sports Show in January. Site, unfortunately for Chinetti, of Mercedes-Benz’ global debut of the brand new W 198 300 SL. Against Stuttgart’s future icon, chassis 0388 didn’t stand a chance.
Still, sunnier skies lay ahead. Just over a year later, and with future Olympic bobsledder Bob Said at the wheel, the Corsa Indianapolis made its competitive debut at the 1955 Daytona Speed Week GP, where the one-off Indy project posted an eyebrow-raising average speed of 170.53mph (just over 274kph) on the sands, and was just shy of grazing 175mph (281kph) that same day. In May 1956, 1950 F1 World Champion Farina made his Indy debut in that year’s Rookies’ Test, though the Italian would have to wait another year before making his event bow. Just a few weeks later, Carroll Shelby – yes, really! – drove the now privately-entered chassis 0388 in two SCCA-officiated hill climbs at Golden Jubilee in Indianapolis and on to an history result at Mount Washington: Shelby’s 10m 21.80s run at the aforementioned ‘Climb to the Clouds’ blew the event’s previous best – Sherwood Johnson’s 10m 44.8s from 1964 – completely out of the water, aided in no small part by the 375’s potent V12. The Texan’s record remained unbeaten until 1961.
Fittingly, its final race proved as inauspicious as its first, chassis 0388 – detuned to a regulatory 4.2 litres and now sporting the red, white and blue livery of the North American Racing Team – was entered for the second 500 Miglia di Monza in 1958 with former non-championship F1 race winner Harry Schell at the wheel. Once again, things went poorly: a solid if unspectacular 12th in Heat 1 was followed by crippling drivetrain problems and an eventual retirement for Schell in Heat 2.
Post-event, the Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis was returned home to Maranello for extended maintenance, its racing life now complete. Quite why further revisions were commissioned for the then-eight year old chassis 0388 in 1960 though, including a broader, F1-style coachwork by Italian engineer Carrozzeria Fantuzzi, is anybody’s guess: even Ferrari has only the original invoice to work with!
Still, revised bodywork or otherwise, Maranello’s fascinating one-off no less deserved its place in Fiorano’s Hall of Fame, and 50 years after retirement in 1958, restoration work began on the Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis as part of Ferrari’s dedicated Classiche program.
Working with existing assembly sheets from the early 1950s – the designated of parts and the model itself were actually codenamed ‘250 Indianapolis’ back in 1953 – Ferrari’s Classiche mechanics set to work overhauling the entire drivetrain, repairing or, where necessary, replacing, the clutch, suspensions, hubs, braking system, fuel tank, oil radiator, fuel tank and shock absorbers with ‘250’ designated components. The tubular chassis? Re-braced by specialist Gilco, albeit with only limited original designs to work with.
The engine? Therein lay a story itself. In early 1953, the design sheet laid out plans for a 2,963.45cc ‘Tipo 250 I’ unit with a single supercharger, but by the time chassis 0388 had made its way to Chinetti in North America in 1954, the Indy plug had been pulled and ‘Tipo 250 I’ had been yoked in favour of a modified version of the 375 Indianapolis’ 4.5-lite V12. The potential of the ‘Tipo 250’ on-track with chassis 0388 will forever remain a mystery.
After some considerable work had been done, the fully restored Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis finally made its Fiorano debut in December 2009, Ferrari test driver, and former F1 veteran, Marc Gené, turning the Corsa’s enormous wheels in anger ahead of assembled press and VIPs. More than half a century after its global debut in New York, chassis 0388 was finally getting its moment in the sun.
Further demonstration runs would follow. In November 2010, this time with leather cap donning, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso at the helm, chassis 0388 led several demonstration laps at that year’s Ferrari World Finals in Valencia. Three years later, now on home turf at the Musei Ferrari in Modena, the Monoposto Corsa Indianapolis was on display alongside the F1 team’s 2013 F138 as Ferrari’s management presented a ‘three-dimensional preview’ of the brand new ‘059/3’ V6 the Scuderia would use in 2014. An innovative though oft-forgotten past meeting the future.
So, in short, we have a DNF finish in 1952, an abandoned campaign in 1954, a completed Rookies’ Test in 1956, and an unraced prototype from 1986. Few would argue that Ferrari has a lot of unfinished business at The Brickyard.
*Images courtesy of Ferrari, John Windsor Williams, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway